Democracy is Messy

I’m still digesting the Open Internet order, and intend to post my thoughts and comments later.   On the surface, it is fairly bland and inoffensive.  It tentatively suggests a way forward, but also seeks guidance.  And with the help of the Web, much guidance is forthcoming.

There are, unfortunately,  many countries which actively suppress public participation in policy matters.  Lashing out against oligarchs, cronies of the Leader, Party officials, well connected businesses and the like can have dreadful consequences.    Corrupt rent-seeking is accomplished through secretive discussions between businesses and officials.   Citizens of these countries suffer both tangible economic and physical harms and intangibly, through sense of powerlessness and oppression.

We Americans are fortunate that the rights of free debate and petition is guaranteed by our Constitution, and that these rights are institutionalized in the fabric of our government.   We are also fortunate that (with few exceptions) the machinery of government is bathed in sunlight and that public access to policy debates is enforced by law – in this case, the Administrative Procedure Act of 1946.   Each of us is entitled to our opinions on matters of public importance, to express them vigorously to our government, and to see that they are properly considered.   Writing this on the 70th Anniversary of the landings at Normandy, I cannot help but reflect upon the direct connection between the sacrifice and heroism of that day, and our rights, privileges and the Rule of Law.

That said,  there is a difference between an opinion and an informed opinion.  When I was a know-it-all kid, my parents and teachers rightly impressed upon me a duty to inform myself before spouting off.  Sometimes, it must have seemed like a losing battle.   More than once, I was admonished that “when you become an expert in such-and-such, you can debate with the experts;  in the meantime listen more and talk less”.    Or, in the words of Lady Burton:

 Men are four:
He who knows not and knows not he knows not, he is a fool—shun him;
He who knows not and knows he knows not, he is simple—teach him;
He who knows and knows not he knows, he is asleep—wake him;
He who knows and knows he knows, he is wise—follow him!
Lady Burton—Life of Sir Richard Burton.

Now that I am an expert in a field that has become contentious, I fully appreciate the wisdom of that teaching.

Which leads back to Network Neutrality.   Public opinion has become inflamed about a cluster of esoteric topics.  There are undisputed facts, disputed facts, speculations, conclusions and opinions.  Unfortunately, the policy debate has been overwhelmed by the latter.

“Net Neutrality” is not devoid of intellectual roots.  It is based on reasoned analysis by  legal experts, most notably Tim Wu,  Susan Crawford and Larry Lessig.  Their work deserves thoughtful debate on its merits.  My take is that much of it is premised on misunderstanding of selected, out-of-context facts,  and developed through various logical fallacies.   I believe that I can rebut most of their points.

The debate also has deep roots in the technology community.  For many years, there has been schism between those who see network resources (“bandwidth”) as abundant, and those who see them as scarce.   In the view of the former, attempts to allocate presumed unlimited capacity is unnecessary, foolish and harmful.  They see all traffic fitting into a common packet forwarding paradigm.   The latter hold that at times,  traffic demand at some points in the network will exceed capacity, that different traffic sources have different performance (“quality of service”) requirements, and that as a result, congestion must be controlled by traffic management  regimes specific to the needs of the source.   I am firmly in the latter camp, as are many other respected experts;  there are many respected experts on the other side.  We have reasoned, if somewhat heated, debates on the topic, all based on a set of undisputed facts.

Pecuniary interest is a motivator on both sides.  It can be argued that at its root, this is a tussle between facility-based broadband providers and content providers over their respective shares of a slice of consumer discretionary income.   The latter have succeeded in portraying themselves as victims, and their opponents as greedy, highly profitable monopolists.  This despite the fact that the same charges can be leveled at some of them.   Some even attack the broadband providers for business practices at the access/transport level, while engaging in those same practices (and worse) at the content level.  Such behavior is expected, and sorting out these tussles is an important function of the FCC.

Then there is the common mob.  Following the call to arms by the likes of Mr. Wu, Ms. Crawford, and Mr. Lessig, as amplified through self- appointed public interest groups like Free Press, Common Knowledge and Save the Internet, and building on other frustrations with broadband operators, the topic has generated inarticulate rage.   In fact, so much that the FCC’s capability to process all the comments has been overwhelmed as if by Denial-of-Service attack.  It is fitting that comedian John Oliver’s rant on Last Week Tonight,  (which apparently froze the FCC’s web site), was a call to action by the Internet’s population of trolls, fanboys, haters and flame writers.

Reading a selection of the more than 2600 comments in the FCC’s EFCS database is  discouraging.  Many are inarticulate rants, more like toddlers’ temper tantrums than contributions to a policy debate.  Many are obviously copied.  Many are off-topic, devoid of basis in fact, built on fallacy and misunderstanding.   Many give cause to mourn the state of public education in English grammar and composition.   And most consist only of one sentence fragment.

I imagine a small army of staffers in the FCC’s headquarters, trying desperately to keep up with the flood.   Their task is unenviable.  I rather fear that thoughtful, original comments – on both sides of the issue – will be lost in the shouting.




4 thoughts on “Democracy is Messy”

  1. Good points. I agree that traffic prioritization is needed, but we also need to understand that networks always revolve around layer 1-3 tradeoffs to deal with capacity, controlled by layer 4, as well as by pricing and other policy/application control features in layers 6-7 based on layer 5 sessions management.

    That said, we do need to question the operating structures of the incumbents in the last mile as they are not generative and they are overpriced due to stranded capex and opex given their balkanzed positions on the “edge” of the “network” and their vertically integrated (silo-ed) business models.

    With the competitive, horizontally scaled WAN at $0.0000004 for a voice equivalent minute (100,000 minutes/cent) and the non-competitive, vertical MAN at $0.001 (10 calls/cent) something has to change. Google fiber has moved the decimal 2 places to the right to 1,000 calls/cent without the benefit of scaling through wireless backhaul/offload, SMB and institutional services. So conceivably even they could move another 1-2 decimal places to the right.

    Lastly, I believe it is “Public Knowledge”, not Common Knowledge.

    1. Thanks for the insightful comments.

      The OSI Reference Model is “a custom more honor’d in the breach than the observance”. OSI never managed to figure out the upper three layers, and the Internet always had a five-layer model. At the lower layers, we have arbitrary sub-layering and planes, with architectural unity only at the Network (or IP) Layer. Also, the closed-loop control system embodied in TCP, based on inference from lower layer packet loss and delay, is once again the most common, but not the only possible, control regime in the Internet. I would go so far as to argue that “traffic prioritization” is really alternative control systems which are better optimized to inelastic and/or real-time applications.

      I tend to hold with the unfashionable theory that the last mile is a natural monopoly, and a distinct market from middle mile and core. Regardless of operating structure, it is capital intensive, and pricing has to cover depreciation, amortization and cost-of-money. The large incumbents’ financials don’t show particularly high operating margins or ROIC. Some of the gross margin is sucked into avoidable G&A, but not enough to suggest badly inflated pricing. Also, opex from legacy plant is a drag on T, VZ, CTL, et al. For the MSOs, technology transition is more seamless, to the extent that legacy plant continues to be upgraded to support leading services. I do think that greater financial transparency is needed; too much of the debate is based on composite figures from rolled-up lines of business. While the opacity may help the incumbents with the investment community, it’s hurting them in the court of public opinion.

      Again, thanks for catching the error. I meant “Public Knowledge and Common Cause”.

  2. I looked this morning and found 47k comments. I find it funny that people are concerned about possible QoS arrangements for money. Those folks are urging for something akin to Title II.

    I think the likely outcome of Title II is something on the order of NECA-like compensation. I don’t foresee it ending any other way for large traffic imbalances.

    It turns out that I am a fan of turning to Title II in any case. My view of that is that a change to common carriage and the resulting changes in the economic model will force companies to have more sustainable businesses. I watched the CLEC monster regulated into existence and then destroy many companies. I would be happier if we did not create this again with models that favor some folks over others.

    1. Thanks, Jim.

      I’m frankly ambivalent about reclassification. The root cause of the problem is the enshrinement of the Computer II dichotomy into the 1996 Telecommunications Act. We would probably have avoided most of the troubles if the FCC or the Supreme Court had decided Brand X differently. But trying to force broadband access into the mold designed for POTS isn’t the right answer, either. Title II and Subchapter B require a plethora of things that don’t make any sense in the Internet context; can you imagine what forbearance proceedings would look like? As a practical matter, if the DC Circuit gave the FCC a wide enough ledge to stand on in Section 706 and 230(b), with threat of Reclassification as a nuclear option, we’d probably get to the desired policy objectives with a lot less pain.

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